Both for the Latin American and Caribbean countries and for the European countries, the issue of quality of social services represents a key element in order to ensure social cohesion and to fight poverty and exclusion. As Alicia Bárcena reminded us during the Regional Conference on Social Development in Latin America and the Caribbean in Lima last November, the conditional cash transfer programs achieved significant progress on human capabilities, with the improvement of indicators such as education, health and nutrition. Nevertheless, “the outcomes of interventions depend to a large extent on the quantity and quality of public services”. Even if in terms of quantity goods results have been achieved and the commitment of all the governments is to increase services coverage, in terms of quality there is still much to be done. This is a major challenge, which can make the difference in the impact of social policies.
At the European level, the Social Protection Committee in 2010 published a proposal of a Voluntary European Quality Framework for Social Services a very useful document for the reflection on this issue. The document aims to develop a common understanding on the quality of social services within the EU by identifying quality principles that these services should fulfill, and to serve as a reference for defining, assuring, evaluating and improving the quality of these services. This voluntary EU Quality Framework refers in particular to essential services provided directly to the person (social assistance services, long-term care, childcare, employment and training services, personal assistants and social housing).
According to this Framework, the overarching quality principles for social service provision are outlined below:
- Available: Access to a wide range of social services should be offered so as to provide users with an appropriate response to their needs as well as, when possible,with freedom of choice among services within the community, at a location which is most beneficial to the users and, where appropriate, to their families.
- Accessible: Social services should be easy to access by all those who may require them. Information and impartial advice about the range of available services and providers should be accessible to all users. People with disabilities should be ensured access to the physical environment in which the service provision takes place, to adequate transport from and to the place of service provision, as well as to information and communication (including information and communication technologies).
- Affordable: Social services should be provided to all the persons who need them(universal access) either free of charge or at a price which is affordable to the individual.
- Person-centred: Social services should address in a timely and flexible manner the changing needs of each individual with the aim of improving their quality of life as well as of ensuring equal opportunities. Social services should take into account the physical, intellectual and social environment of the users and should be respectful of their cultural specificities. Furthermore, they should be driven by the needs of the users and, when appropriate, of the related beneficiaries of the service provided.
- Comprehensive: Social services should be conceived and delivered in an integrated manner which reflects the multiple needs, capacities and preferences of the users and,when appropriate, their families and carers and which aims to improve their well being.
- Continuous: Social services should be organized so as to ensure continuity of service delivery for the duration of the need and, particularly when responding to developmental and long-term needs, according to a life-cycle approach that enables the users to rely on a continuous, uninterrupted range of services, from early interventions to support and follow up, while avoiding the negative impact of disruption of service.
- Outcome-oriented: Social services should be focused primarily on the benefits for the users, taking into account, when appropriate, the benefits for their families,informal carers and the community. Service delivery should be optimized on the basis of periodic evaluations which should inter alia channel into the organization feedback from users and stakeholders.
In addition to these general principles, the voluntary quality framework defines quality principles for the relationships between service providers and users; for the relationships between service providers, public authorities, social partners and other stakeholders; and quality principles for human and physical capital, in order to ensure good working conditions and a qualified staff.
For the definition, measurement and evaluation of social services quality, tools like standards, indicators, operational criteria, might be developed by relevant actors in the social services sector, in order to help fulfilling the quality principles identified in the previous section. In this regard the Voluntary Quality Framework suggests methodological elements to develop quality tools (definition, scope, validity, cross-country comparability, data availability, responsiveness).